Asheville – Asheville Police Department (APD) Chief David Zack presented before the council because City Manager Debra Campbell thought his presentation made before the Public Safety Committee was important for the wider public to hear. He shared trends in local law enforcement over the last ten years. In general, the number of incidents has risen.
For one thing, the city is not that different from others. Staffing shortages are common for law enforcement agencies. Zack said there were large dips in recruitment efforts after Ferguson, and since 2020, hiring has been “tough.” Zack said in 2020, seven cadets graduated from A-B Tech’s basic law enforcement training academy, but six have quit already. Another seven would have graduated this year, but two didn’t make it.
Compensation is Key
Zack said support and adequate compensation were key to recruiting and retaining quality employees. Average officer pay in North Carolina is low, and Western North Carolina is one of the lower-paying regions in the state, but Asheville was “aggressively addressing” that. He added that care must be taken to maintain a quality force, which means not all applicants should be hired and some veterans must be let go.
With vast staffing shortages and rising crime rates, the APD now has to balance keeping the streets safe with reimagining the police. Since 2015, reported violent crimes rose steadily from about 400 to 600. Homicides, he said, typically run between seven to twelve a year, but in 2021, the city cleared 80 percent of its cases, compared to a national average of 61.4 percent. In 2018, the APD received 395 calls to respond to a gun discharge. In 2020, they answered 651.
Councilwoman Sheneika Smith asked if Zack looked into the feasibility of operating a gunfire locator in the city. Zack said he researched the locators extensively and agreed they are very successful in cities where gun violence is a major issue. They help police respond to an incident quickly because the alarm system dispatchers are notified before anyone calls 911. Getting to the scene faster, in turn, improves the case clearance rate and gets offenders off the streets. The notifications can also be used as evidence.
Zack explained that the same gun is frequently used in more than one crime, and the very few hardened criminals tend to be repeat offenders.
Smith asked for an estimate of the magnitude of investing in one of the systems. Zack said his research was dated, but when he presented local leadership in his former jurisdiction with the price tag, “they passed out.” He didn’t know if the technology was getting more or less expensive, but negotiations would begin with a vendor visiting on-location to discuss with city staff how many microphones they want and where. Zack concluded the best strategy for sustained results is, “to keep guns out of people’s hands in the first place.”
Smith also asked if asset forfeiture funds could be used for reparations. Zack said those funds are highly regulated by levels of government higher than the city, but examples of uses include running programs to reduce the number of guns and drugs on the streets and purchasing equipment.
Councilwoman Sage Turner asked why the homicide clearance rate was so high, and Zack said it was the “level of cooperation” in the community. He said Asheville has a “very active citizenry that wants to get involved and help.” The city set up the TIP411 text tool in December, and since then, it has received 1,100 tips, many of which led to arrests. As an example of its effectiveness, he said a week earlier a person broke into six homes in one night. TIP411 “lit up,” and people told police who the person was and where he lived.
Citizens can also help police focus on violent crime by using the Police to Citizen (P2C) tool, available through the city’s website. Zack said a recent press release about police no longer responding to certain calls was spun as either, “the sky is falling,” or “political theater.” Zack said it was merely an attempt to encourage more people to use P2C, which had been used only dozens of times a month since its launch in May 2020.
Other things the APD is doing to deal with a reduced force include working with the county to develop a community paramedicine program, reimagining the role of school resource officers, continuing to work toward consolidating local 911 services and perhaps trying to use civilian crash investigators, as Wilmington does. In the end, Zack said, “crime prevention is everyone’s responsibility,” and people need to lock, secure, and hide valuables. He said the department gets hundreds of calls a year because items are stolen from unlocked vehicles. Stolen bicycles are also a huge issue. Not only do stolen items generate an initial police response, Zack said, they initiate hundreds of investigations.
Zack refused to jump to naïve conclusions to further popular narratives about the demographics of police enforcement. He said, for starters, per-capita counts don’t give the full story because Asheville is a tourist city. Also, if the city gets multiple requests to patrol neighborhoods of a certain demographic, the number of arrests will likely slant toward that demographic. Then, there are the old saws about crime statistics reflecting, as much as they do crime levels, a community’s willingness to report and law enforcement’s ability to intervene. “Data is,” he said, trailing off.